Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mixed-diet households adapt, compromise to make mealtimes work

Published April 3, 2012 in the Commercial Appeal
Can carnivores and vegetarians coexist peacefully around the same dinner table?

Many families find themselves answering that question daily at mealtimes.

When Cameron Mann and his wife, Amy, started dating in 2005, they went out to dinner a lot. Amy had been a vegetarian for about 12 years at that point, and with their busy schedules, going out to eat was the most convenient option.

By the time they married in 2010, they'd had ample time to get into a routine and figure out what works for them.

"As a concession to my carnivorous habits, Amy generally cooks meat for me once a week, usually fish or chicken," says Cameron, noting that Amy's always careful to purchase humanely raised (grass-fed beef, free-range chicken) and organic items and any fish she purchases is not farm-raised.

"Dinner for the other nights can be anything from a veggie plate, hearty soup and/or salad, a stir fry, or something like that," he says. "Given that my work schedule sees me having dinner out of the house one or two nights a week, I use those opportunities to eat barbecue, a burger or steak."

Cameron has grown to enjoy eating vegetarian food most of the time, thanks to his wife's excellent cooking skills.

"I've learned to appreciate the myriad possibilities in the veggie world and am leaning in that direction, finding my carny cravings waning by the day," he says. Will he ever quit meat altogether? Not likely, but Amy's vegetarianism has opened up more and healthier dining possibilities for both of them.

Jerri Green, a 34-year-old criminal attorney turned stay-at-home mom of two, has had a slightly rockier time getting her husband to adjust his eating habits. She became a vegetarian at age 19 after taking a Buddhism class in college. A self-taught cook, she was soon known for her delicious dinner parties and study groups. After completing law school at Georgetown, she moved to Nashville, where she met the man who would become her husband.

When she started dating Patrick, he ate only about three vegetables, and that was begrudgingly. "He's a really big guy," Jerri says of the 6-foot-8, 300-pound former NFL lineman. "He can put away a lot of meat. He's the T. Rex of carnivores."

She knew she was never going to change the way he eats and vice versa, so she started searching for recipes that she could easily adapt to suit both of them.

"We went six months without one repeat," Jerri says. "That's when I decided I had a big enough repertoire to put my recipes online."

She started cooking4carnivores.com as a creative outlet before having children. "My website isn't just for mixed-diet families." Many of her nonvegetarian friends are eating less meat or doing Meatless Mondays and have found inspiration on her blog.

"In the South, everything has meat," she says. "... There was a need out there, and I decided to put out what my family eats."

Tortellini with cream sauce is a family favorite. Jerri adds mushrooms to her portion and chicken to her husband's.

"It's not about giving up what we like," she says.

There are a few challenges: She can't taste her husband's food when she cooks it, but she says that cooking meat doesn't gross her out. "We're just real-life people trying to work this out. Patrick's probably more grossed out by lettuce and all of the vegetables I eat."

Eating fresh and seasonal is part of how she makes it work. "In fall, we both like sweet potatoes. In the summer, Patrick could care less about a tomato unless it's in a marinara sauce."

There have been some small victories.

"I sometimes hide squash in macaroni and cheese," she admits. "Just getting him to try things like a roasted carrot makes me happy. He has the palate of a 5-year-old."

Once, Patrick saw spinach in the rigatoni and said, "I'm not going to like that." Jerri encouraged him to give it a try, and he liked it.

"He's getting better," she says.

Their children are under 2. "I'm real purposeful with the kids. I want them to have better palates than their dad."

Her son, almost 2, loves avocados. "I'm about to have more struggles with my daughter (5 months)," she said. "I make good food available, and they either eat it or don't. I also make sure I have good snacks on hand."

She finds inspiration everywhere -- cookbooks, websites, dining out. "I am always trying to figure out how to make a meal one of us likes or looks amazing work for both of us."

Brian Thompson, who lives in East Memphis with his wife of 22 years, is equally enthusiastic about adapting recipes. He says he got a shock in January 2001 when his wife announced that she was going to try to live a vegetarian lifestyle.

"It really made me do a double take. I had spent the first 12 years of our marriage perfecting several dinner dishes and could almost cook them with my eyes closed. Now my wife was going to be a vegetarian?" he says.

Lucie quit eating meat as her personal way of being an activist against the damage the production of meat does to our environment.

"We get more pesticides in our meat, due to the pesticides used on the grains to feed the animals, than we get on our vegetables," she says. "We also have the issue of the pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are used on the feed crops, which run off into our streams and rivers."

Brian, who does most of the cooking, decided to look at it as a challenge. "I can't make Southern comfort food like Grandma made, but I can make a vegetarian version that rocks; just let me have a little meat on the side."

He also often includes a meat substitute for his wife.

"If I am grilling steaks, I will grill her a big portobello mushroom," he says.

He has also learned to eat a lot more meat substitutes. "Whenever I make chili, it is always with fake meat crumbles now, same for tacos, spaghetti, etc. We serve chili every year at our Super Bowl party, and a lot of our friends don't even realize it's vegetarian."

Chicken and beef stock have been replaced with vegetable stock. "You really cannot tell the difference," Brian says. He eats a lot more vegetables and fish than he did before his wife became a vegetarian.

"I am cutting back on my meat intake, but I'm not giving it up, I just enjoy it way too much," he says. "I look at it as an adventure. I am getting to cook a lot of amazing dishes I may have never looked into fixing before."


Jerri Green (cooking4carnivores.com) finds recipes via Pinterest and chubbyvegetarian.blogspot.com by Memphians Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence.

"I love my monthly Bon Appetit magazine," she says. "It may seem intimidating for the home cook, but it has such interesting ideas and great technique tips." She also finds family-friendly recipes in Parenting magazine and is looking forward to using "The New Southern Garden Cookbook" she received for Christmas and "The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook," because she got a cast-iron skillet as a gift.

A favorite go-to recipe:

Lemon Herbed Spaghetti

1 box of thin whole wheat spaghetti

1 lemon

1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan and more for topping

2 sprigs fresh oregano

Several leaves fresh parsley

2 tbsp. of olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Boil the pasta for about 8 minutes in salted water. Drain and return to the pot. Toss with oil, salt and pepper. Squeeze in the juice of half the lemon and toss again. Add in the Parmesan and stir once more. Chop the herbs coarsely and add them in last. Serve immediately. Top with more Parmesan and garnish with thin slices of the rest of the lemon. Serves four to six.

Note: This can be a side dish or a main dish if you add grilled chicken for the carnivore or kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes for the vegetarian.

Brian Thompson's favorite cookbooks are "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone," by Deborah Madison; "The Food of Morocco" and "Delicious Diabetic Recipes" by Rani Polak.

"As far as websites, we really like food.com, and we usually just Google search using ingredients in the search bar."

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